English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

20 September 2013

Scientists Behaving Badly

In his current television series, Science Britannica, Professor Brian Cox argues that real-life scientists receive something of a bad press. They are, he argues, regarded with undue suspicion by the public, frequently seen as either dabblers meddling with forces they don't understand or else as out-and-out madmen trying to play God. He does, undeniably, have a point although I fear it will ever be thus. Cox cites the example of the Italian physicist Giovanni Aldini whose work on galvanism and its medical applications stands in a direct line with the development of today's defibrillator devices. Aldini, however, is now best remembered (and even that possibly erroneously) as the inspiration for a much more famous scientist - the less than ethically rigorous Victor Frankenstein. Aldini may have made dead limbs twitch under the application of an electric current but Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein made an entire stitched-together body come to life only to somewhat irresponsibly abandon his creation at the first sign of trouble, allowing it to engage in a murderous rampage across the countryside. Here, perhaps, is the beginning of a whole new level of scientist-bashing. Scientists may receive a bad press at the hands of the general public who misunderstand their aims and methods but in the hands of the literary establishment they quite frequently receive nothing less than a glossy makeover into the realms of nightmare. The trouble is, as a literary device, when it comes to providing a potential for villany and chaos on an epic scale the mad scientist is terrifically hard to beat.

Of course Science and the Humanities do have previous. Like two children squabbling over the same toy they rarely manage to play nicely together. C.P. Snow's famous 1959 lecture 'The Two Cultures' argued that science teaching had been unfairly and dangerously neglected due to an exaggerated emphasis on the arts and humanities. Ideally the two disciplines would be granted an equal weight but somehow an air of distrust always lurks between the two as though they are on opposite sides, rather than two components of a balanced whole. Nowhere was this more obvious than during the Victorian fin de siècle. Scientists such as T.H. Huxley were hugely respected in real life but in the pages of fiction readers were presented with one misbehaving lunatic in a laboratory after another. Famous examples include Dr Moreau, conducting experiments into accelerated evolution on his island via means of vivisection; Dr Jekyll, unleashing the beast within as he explores the darker implications of evolutionary theory; Dr Griffin, conducting a murderous spree as his experiments into invisibility leave him isolated and insane and Dr Ledsmar from Harold Frederic's brilliant The Damnation of Theron Ware, living in his isolated house up on the hill, experimenting upon his collection of lizards and dosing his Chinese manservant with vast doses of opium merely to observe the effects. Amoral, arrogant and brilliantly twisted Dr Ledsmar is a horror. He is also terrifically good fun to read about. The well-behaved considerate scientist acting responsibly under an impeccable moral and ethical code would, on the other hand, be something of a bore.


(Above: A scientist - if he's late-Victorian and in a novel chances are that whatever he's up to it isn't going to end well).

The 1880s and 1890s witnessed the conclusions - both good and ill - of Darwinism being thought through together with their possible implications for religion, humankind's place in Nature, evolution and degeneration. Fears about the heat death of the universe haunted the final pages of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine while up and down the county debate raged about the need and usefulness of animal vivisection experiments. Science was achieving brilliant things in medicine, communications and engineering but it was also unveiling some depressing possibilities for humankind. Respect for the scientist, and fear of what may be unleashed as a result of scientific research went hand in hand. Literature held a mirror to the potentially dark side of scientific endeavour. I suspect, for better or worse, it will always be so. Misbehaving scientists simply make for brilliant and cautionary stories .


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